Happy birthday Copernicus – 540 years old today, according to the rather splendid daily Google logo. At school we called him ‘copper knickers’ and most of us remember only vaguely that he was an astronomer, but sailors have much to thank him for. The 16th century was not a good time for accurate maps, and Copernicus was on dangerous ground when he proposed the heretical idea that the earth was a sphere circling the sun.
The idea was not entirely new, just long forgotten. Thirteen centuries earlier, the Greeks had done their sums and worked out that the earth was a sphere; Pythagoras even suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, but the idea fell out of favour, and later Christian tradition was having none of that sort of nonsense.
As the Dark Ages became darker, the wisdom of the early Greeks was lost and forgotten. In the 8th century spherical earth enthusiasts were condemned by Pope Zachary who declared it a ‘perverse and sinful’ doctrine. Meanwhile a Christian called Cosmos Indicopleustes went as far as a square earth theory – his map was rectangular, as he said the earth was in a box with a curved lid, like the tabernacle in the Bible.
Most of the Middle Ages was spent trying to squeeze the map of the known world into a Biblical model. Jerusalem had to be at the centre and the four rivers leading to the Garden of Eden fitted in somewhere. Scholars argued over the exact location of Paradise, and many sailors, coming across remote islands, thought they had found it. The map as moral metaphor had become more important than the map as a means of finding your way from A to B while avoiding going aground at C.
This, of course, was not the slightest help to seafarers, whose seamaps were not only highly inaccurate but cluttered with moral codes and imagined terrors – ‘Here be dragons’, along with seamonsters, giant squid, boiling seas and walls of ice or fire. The early explorers were made of sterner stuff than we can ever imagine, safe inside our gps-tracked, googlemapped and exact world.
But maps and charts can still delight as well as showing the way – the image above is my interpretation of the River Deben in Suffolk. It’s being made into a poster and postcard, decorative as well as useful, I hope, and not a dragon in sight.